In Honor of the Left Opposition

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Paul Le Blanc

SIXTY YEARS AGO, in the same year that bloody purges orchestrated by Communist Party dictator Joseph Stalin were engulfing their country, small groups of dissident Communist heroes and heroines in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics waged their final struggle for the original ideals of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

“I have described these people because I am grateful to them for having existed, and because they incarnated an epoch,” wrote Victor Serge of the revolutionary and working-class militants in his luminous novel Midnight in the Century. He was referring to the men and women of the Left Opposition, who struggled “for a renewal of the ideology, morals and institutions of Socialism” that had been degraded by the bureaucratic and murderous authoritarianism of the Stalin regime in the USSR.

They are often referred to as the Russian Trotskyists, although this is misleading. One of the few members of this current to have survived, Serge noted that “our Oppositional movement in Russia had not been Trotskyist,” its activists rejecting leadership cults as much as they respected the ideas, integrity and example of Leon Trotsky. “We regarded the Old Man only as one of our greatest comrades, an elder member of the family over whose ideas we argued freely.”

More often, they referred to themselves as Bolshevik-Leninists, fiercely embracing and defending the revolutionary internationalism, working-class democracy, and uncompromising integrity which they felt had animated the party of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the revolution of 1917, in which many of them had been active participants.

Some were younger than that. Nadezhda Joffe, whose father’s suicide-protest against Stalinism took place shortly before Trotsky’s 1927 exile, was twenty-one years old when she plunged into the struggle:

“After my father’s death and Trotsky’s exile, we developed the Oppositional work with particular force. It must be noted that the most irreconcilable Oppositionists to Stalin’s growing regime were precisely the young people, and especially the student youth. We were most of all impressed by the fact that the Opposition called for the free expression of opinions in the struggle against the spreading bureaucracy….

“I must say, that of all the innerparty groupings, it was only the Trotskyists who actively fought. We did approximately what revolutionaries did in the czarist underground. We organized groups of sympathizers at the factories and in the schools; we issued leaflets and distributed them…. We naturally established contact with young workers, and due to this I became acquainted with many of their representatives.”

Of course, some of the older revolutionaries had been active in the anti-bureaucratic resistance since the early and mid-1920s. Those grouped around Trotsky joined in a bloc, for a short time in 1926-27, with less intransigent forces led by Gregory Zinoviev.

The United Opposition advanced a program for revolutionary internationalism, more rapid industrial development, defense of workers’ rights, a return to democratic debate and decision-making within the Communist movement, and resistance to the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR. Although forced to meet clandestinely, many of its organizers were optimistic, while others had the more somber view that “even if there were only one chance in a hundred for regeneracy of the Revolution and its workers’ democracy, that chance had to be taken at all costs.”

This was the view of Victor Serge, who later recounted: “To the comrades who, under the firs in the cemetery, or on a waste plot near a hospital, or in poverty-striken houses, demanded some promise of victory from me, I would answer that the struggle would be prolonged and harsh.”

Working-Class Ferment, Bureaucratic Repression

While Oppositional perspectives found resonance among workers, and won adherents in factories and even state-controlled unions, the ferment, agitation and strikes of 1926-27 were not sufficient to counter the continued authority — even among many disgruntled workers and dissatisfied Communists — of the Communist Party leadership, not to mention the power of the bureaucratic state apparatus (especially the resource-rich secret police of the GPU).

Open demonstrations were savagely repressed, and the Opposition’s secret print shop was raided. Most open members of the United Opposition were arrested and sent into internal exile to isolated villages in the vast northern regions. Soon Zinoviev and most of his followers recanted in order to obtain their freedom and be taken back into their old party and state positions.

Yet the Left Opposition remained a force to be reckoned with. According to the old Yugoslav dissident Ante Ciliga – a critical-minded eyewitness — ”Trotskyism was the only Opposition grouping that carried any weight in Soviet society, the others [he specifically mentions the more radical “Democratic Centralists”] being practically negligible.”

As Michal Reiman explains in his important study The Birth of Stalinism:

“Stalin could not ignore the fact that the left opposition still remained a potential nest of serious resistance. The overall deterioration of urban conditions had led to a growth in political activism [in 1928]. Once again, opposition leaflets were being distributed widely, and members of the opposition had penetrated the workers’ ranks, helping to organize their social struggle. Trotsky’s articles, letters, and notes, illegally obtained from Alma Ata, were circulating among party member”.

“On the anniversary of the October revolution in 1928, the opposition once again tried to organize street demonstrations. Trotsky’s popularity was growing. ‘His firmness and courage are patently impressive,’ noted a contemporary. For many, the name ‘Trotsky’ became a symbol of consistent and open struggle against Stalinist policies.”

This was by no means a wave of proletarian revolution, however, and increased repression proved quite capable of containing it. This made Oppositionists still at liberty incredibly vulnerable.

“In one of his pre-revolutionary articles, Lenin wrote: ‘We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand,'” noted Nadezhda Joffe. “That is what it was like for us. We were going in a tight group along the edge of a precipice, which was not only deep but fatal for many of those who went.” Joffe herself was arrested in the spring of 1929.

Capitulators and Stalwarts

By 1928-29, as the Stalin regime seemed to be making a “left” turn, particularly in the direction of rapid industrialization, prominent Left Oppositionists such as Eugen Preobrazhensky and Karl Radek were beginning to break ranks. Others not prepared to recant circulated the harsh ditty: “If you miss your family and your teapot too, write a letter to the head of the GPU.”

Victor Serge later explained that “the vocation of defeated revolutionists in a totalitarian state is a hard one. Many abandon you when they see the game is lost. Others, whose personal courage and devotion are above question, think it best to maneuver to adapt themselves to the circumstances.”

Christian Rakovsky and two other prominent Oppositionists circulated a declaration meant to rally those among the arrested dissidents who were not inclined to capitulate, yet as Trotsky later commented, “the ideological life of the Opposition seethed like a cauldron at that time.”

Historian Isabelle Longuet notes that some Oppositionists “attacked [the Rakovsky declaration] for not being critical enough of the capitulators and for overestimating the shift to the Left [by the Stalinists, referred to as “centrists” by Trotsky in this early period]…. ‘There is nothing to be expected from centrists,’ they wrote. It was up to the masses themselves (party members and nonparty) to conquer party democracy and working-class democracy.”

The pressures to give in were intense, when capitulation could mean freedom, and adherents of the Opposition in jail and exile melted down from about 10,000 in 1928 to 800 in 1930. By 1934, Rakovsky himself was ready to capitulate, his views later recounted by Nadezhda Joffe, in whom he confided and whom he won over:

“His basic thoughts were that we had to return to the party in any way possible. He felt that there was undoubtedly a layer in the party which shared our views at heart, but had not decided to voice their agreement. And we could become a kind of common sense core and be able to accomplish something. Left in isolation, he said, they would strangle us like chickens.”

This was a logic which Trotsky, in exile outside of the USSR, absolutely rejected. So did his cothinkers who remained exiled in the small village “isolators.” One survivor later recalled the toasts they made on New Year’s Day: “The first toast was to our courageous and long-suffering wives and women comrades, who were sharing our fate. We drank our second toast to the world proletarian revolution. Our third was to our people’s freedom and our own liberation from prison.”

Instead, they would soon be transferred to the deadly Siberian labor camps into which hundreds of thousands of victims of the 1935-39 purges (including most of the capitulators plus many other Communist Party members) were sent as Stalinist repression tightened throughout the country.

Grandeur…and the Deep Black Night

Writing his classic analysis of the bureaucratic degeneration of working-class power in Soviet Russia, The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky insisted in 1936 that “the bureaucracy can be removed only by revolutionary force — “but he didn’t expect that this could be accomplished spontaneously.

The accumulating grievances and pain and anger among the working-class and peasant majority would need to connect with a clear program around which experienced revolutionary activists had gathered. While the Left Opposition was “still weak and driven underground,” he believed that its militants could ultimately “stand at the head of the masses” in a struggle in which “bureaucratic autocracy must give way to soviet democracy.”

Some have expressed skepticism about the practicality of such a perspective for the Russian Left Oppositionists  or even about whether such people still existed in the USSR.

At least on this last point, Trotsky’s perceptions were not unconnected with historical realities inside the USSR at that time. Arrested while in Moscow in 1936, Secretary of the Palestinian Communist Party Joseph Berger later remembered the Left Oppositionists he met during his own ordeal:

“While the great majority had ‘capitulated,’ there remained a hard core of uncompromising Trotskyists, most of them in prisons and camps. They and their families had all been rounded up in the preceding months and concentrated in three large camps – Kolyma, Vorkuta, and Norilsk…. The majority were experienced revolutionaries who had fought in the Civil War but had joined the Opposition in the early twenties…. Purists, they feared contamination of their doctrine above all else in the world…. When I accused the Trotskyists of sectarianism, they said what mattered was ‘to keep the banner unsullied.'”

Another survivor’s account, published in the emigre publication of Russian Mensheviks, Socialist Messenger, recalls “the Orthodox Trotskyists” of the Vorkuta labor camp who “were determined to remain faithful to their platform and their leaders,” and, “even though they were in prison, they continued to consider themselves Communists; as for Stalin and his supporters, ‘the apparatus men,’ they were characterized as renegades from communism.”

Along with their supporters and sympathizers (some of whom had never even been members of the Communist Party), they numbered in the thousands in this area, according to the witness. As word spread of Stalin’s show trials designed to frame and execute the Old Bolshevik leaders, and as conditions at the camp deteriorated, “the entire group of ‘Orthodox’ Trotskyists” came together. The eyewitness remembers the speech of Socrates Gevorkian:

“It is now evident that the group of Stalinist adventurers have completed their counterrevolutionary coup d’etat in our country. All the progressive conquests of our revolution are in mortal danger. Not twilight shadows but those of the deep black night envelop our country…. No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors and hangmen of the revolution. But before destroying us, Stalin will try to humiliate us as much as he can…. We are left with only one means of struggle in this unequal battle: the hunger strike….”

The great majority of prisoners, regardless of political orientation, followed this lead. Lasting from October 1936 to March 1937, the 132-day hunger strike was powerfully effective and forced the camp officials and their superiors to give in to the strikers’ demands.

“True grandeur,” is the term Victor Serge used in 1937: “They are not vanquished, they are resisters, and they often have victorious souls…. What is best and clearest in the conscience of the masses which, tomorrow, sooner or later, will awaken, lives in them.”

In 1938 the Trotskyists of Vorkuta were marched out in batches  men, women, children over the age of twelve  into the surrounding arctic wasteland. “Their names were checked against a list and then, group by group, they were called out and machine gunned,” writes Joseph Berger. “Some struggled, shouted slogans and fought the guards to the last.”

According to the witness writing in Socialist Messenger, as one larger group of about a hundred was led out of the camp to be shot, “the condemned sang the ‘Internationale’ joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp.”

Their memory, their spirit, their commitments were embraced by small groups of men and women in countries throughout the world, many of whom formed the Fourth International, a worldwide organization for socialist revolution whose “Bolshevik-Leninist” program was articulated by Trotsky himself.

But the meaning of what they were radiates far beyond any organizational boundaries. It can be found wherever workers struggle for dignity, fight to win the battle for democracy, and reach for a world in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.


Joseph Berger. Shipwreck of a Generation (London: Havrill Press, 1971).

Ante Ciliga. The Russian Enigma (London: Ink Links, 1979).

Tony Cliff. Trotsky: 19271940 (London: Bookmarks, 1993)<./p>

Nadezhda Joffe. Back in Time (Oak Ridge, MI: Labor Publications, 1996).

Paul Le Blanc. Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993).

Michal Reiman. The Birth of Stalinism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

George Saunders, ed. Samizdat (New York: Monad Press, 1974).

Victor Serge. From Lenin to Stalin (New York: Monad Press, 1974).

__________. Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London: Writers and Readers, 1984).

__________. Midnight of the Century (London: Writers and Readers, 1982).

__________. Russia Twenty Years After (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1996).

Leon Trotsky. The Revolution Betrayed (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974).

ATC 67, March-April 1997